How Meditation Enhances Creativity
By Wendy Sterndale
Take a Breath to Get Smarter
Have you ever been told that you are trying too hard and then advised to just stop, take a step back and take a breath? That little bit of advice is well worth heeding. Studies have shown that meditating decreases stress and depression, allowing for clearer thinking and more even emotions.
In 2012, a study conducted at UCLA found more narrow grooves and folds in the cortex area of the brain in long-term meditators. Those grooves and folds are associated with speedy information processing, which may increase creativity needed for inspiration to solve problems and to create art. The study focused on 50 meditators who each had about 20 years of experience. The increase in grooves and folds was found throughout the cortex, but special note was made of those found in the area of the brain associated with emotions and self-control. Scientists suggested that this could be why people who meditate are known to be able to focus so well, avoid distractions, and are good at introspection and awareness. They also recommended further study to learn more about how this works.
Focus Versus Allowing
Also in 2012, at Leiden University in the Netherlands, researchers studied two types of meditation associated with Buddhism to learn more about how meditation impacts how we think. Researchers expected to find that meditators who practice by focusing on a process would be better at finding one great solution to a well-defined problem — convergent thinking. They also expected to find that those who practiced by experiencing and allowing all sensations and thoughts without judgment would be better at coming up with a wide range of inventive solutions — divergent thinking.
They found that those who practiced allowing all thought were better at divergent thinking. Those who practiced by focusing their minds were only just barely better at convergent thinking; this group did not do as well at divergent thinking. Both groups of meditators were happier and more relaxed after meditating. Researchers recommended a longer study.
Science Categorizes Creativity
In order to study ways that meditation enhances creativity, scientists first define and categorize meditation and creative processes.
- Convergent and divergent thinking were mentioned above, in the Netherlands study.
- Incubation is when a person takes a break and gets some rest before revisiting a problem with a fresh perspective. Without a break, the person may miss or forget important clues, or may focus on the wrong strategy.
- The Creative Cognitive approach is one in which a person imagines what they will do, mentally exploring a procedure from end to end. You may have done this when coming up with a vacation idea, before making specific arrangements.
- Explicit-Implicit Interaction theory proposes that creative insights can evolve when something implied repeatedly interacts with what is clear and distinct, or vice versa. This can be helpful when coming up with process-based theories.
- Conceptual Blending occurs when two unrelated ideas converge. Humor comes from this technique quite a bit.
- Honing Theory might be a technique you use to advance in your life, and solve personal problems while keeping an eye on your worldview and attitudes. When you include the world into any of the processes mentioned here, you are including the Honing Theory. Every creative act impacts your worldview. Your worldview is likely to change when you are creative.
Creative People Meditate
What do creative people who meditate have to say about their own experiences? Here are what some famous creative meditators say about their work and their inner lives.
- Hugh Jackman, actor, was advised by a great acting teacher to be in the moment, aware of the senses. This advice was given very soon after a meditation instructor had advised the exact same thing.
- Russell Simmons, hip hop mogul, reports that his concentration is better, memory is better, he’s more comfortable in his skin, and says that when he’s more awake during the day, distracting noises do not get in his way. He notices more of what’s there for him to use and do creatively. He is more grateful. Meditation allows him to be a great giver.
- Jerry Seinfeld, comedian, and meditator for 40 years, said that meditation charges his body and mind.
- Oprah Winfrey, media mogul, believes in meditation to the extent that she supports twice-daily meditation practice for her staff.
- Katy Perry, pop star, says she meditates to, “help bring more creativity, positive energy, and peace to my life.”
- Shirley MacLaine, actress, has written and spoken about thriving creatively while developing a strong inner life. She observed that many people in the entertainment industry associated stress with the creative process. The longer she has meditated and nurtured her internal wellbeing, the more she has moved away from that association.
- Steve Jobs heard, and took to heart, Zen Master Richard Baker, abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, advocating “helping the environment and empowering the individual.” Jobs told the TV show 60 Minutes that he modeled his business after The Beatles: “There were four guys that kept each other’s negative tendencies in check; they balanced each other. And the total was greater than the sum of the parts.” These traits of balance and perspective were part of his motivation to contribute to the world.
Many more creative people meditate: comedian Russell Brand, news commentator George Stephanopoulos, musicians Sheryl Crow and Paul McCartney, actor Clint Eastwood.
Creative People in the Environment of Meditation
Some creative people were influenced by their proximity to longtime meditators, even if they didn’t claim to meditate.
- John Cage, avant-garde composer, wrote, “When I was young and still writing an unstructured music, albeit methodical and not improvised, one of my teachers, Adolph Weiss, used to complain that no sooner had I started a piece than I brought it to an end. I introduced silence. I was a ground, so to speak, in which emptiness could grow.” And, “In the late forties I found out by experiment (I went into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University) that silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around. I devoted my music to it.” He was influenced by Zen, studied with Daisets Suzuki.
From what these researchers and creative people are reporting, to be more creative we must strive to be aware of our sensory responses to the environment, be more aware of our thoughts; be intently open to imaginative musings, and receptive to coincidence. Moments of focused, active quiet can help us tap into our own creativity.